“I’m here. Can you hear me?”
No response came.
“I know you can hear me, D.”
A mechanical groan.
“Then why are you asking?”
The attitude on this girl.
On my phone, the image of D stretched, pixelated when she moved to adjust the screen on her end. The connection kept breaking up in some parts, making the sound and picture distorted and warped. I would have tried to make a joke about it, but D didn’t seem like she was in the mood.
Might as well just get to the point.
“Just wanted to make sure,” I said. “We just left the city, still on the road. Duh. It’s so… flat, out here, and wide. But also hilly. Expansive, you know what I mean?”
“It never really occurred to me, that I’ve spent so much of my life in the city. It’s a whole different atmosphere out here. Being able to see the horizon and have it not being blocked by a building or a billboard. It’s oddly… liberating, in a way. Freeing. Just, like, being on the open road and seeing nothing but the clouds and trees. It’s a nice change of pace.”
“What does this have to do with anything?”
“I’m just saying, when all’s said and done, I could see myself spending some more time out here, going camping, or something. Star gazing.”
“I didn’t know you were into that kind of stuff.”
“I could be.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re one of those girls that are super into horses. I never liked them. Creeps me out.”
“I don’t, what? I don’t have any particular liking for them. Is that a thing?”
“You never heard of it? It’s like, when certain girls get super obsessive with horses, for whatever reason. They put posters up in their room and carry binders and folders to school with pictures of them, so it doesn’t even stay at home. And they wear rhinestones and denim for everything, and, oh god, don’t ever ask them what they did on the weekend. It’s-”
The image of D pixelated again, when she brought her hand to her face.
“Ugh, never mind. You threw me on a tangent. What did you even want, again?”
“I told you, I was going to call as soon as I left the city. And to kind of loosen ourselves up a bit. You know, to take my mind off… everything.”
“I can’t, or I won’t. If anything happens I need to be here and awake for that. But I can’t focus too much on that or else I’m going to go crazy, like, actually crazy. I need a destresser.”
The groan that came from D sounded dry and almost automated. It wasn’t from the lagging connection.
“Wendy, it’s four in the morning. You’re rambling about the wide open plains and you’ve got me talking about horse girls. We’re already crazy.”
“Just take the occasional nap. Close your eyes and take a break. It doesn’t even need to be for very long or very often. Just so you don’t crash later in the day, that’s when the pressure’s really on.”
“I hear you.”
“I’m being serious. This isn’t like a walk in the park or whatever. You’re out in the open, being on the interstate, and the cops out there will be looking for any little thing to pounce on, if they sense anything that raises their suspicion by even a smidge. And it’s worse once you get to El Paso. Border patrol aside, there’s the Army medical center, an Army airfield, and Fort Bliss, one of the largest military complexes in the country and the largest training area in the country. Which is to say, you’re going right into the belly of the military industrial complex with this one. It’s not something to take lightly.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“But, it’s whatever, nothing I hadn’t told you already. And I definitely won’t bring up the fact that you should have brought me along. You won’t hear that from me.”
“I think I’ll take your advice for that nap, then. Probably for the best.”
“What else, before I hang up? How’s Lawrence doing?”
“He’s holding up. I just got back from helping him into his apartment. Took a bit longer because he was demanding more painkillers.”
“Did you give him any?”
“I made sure to give him a regulated dosage. I know the numbers. He’s not overdosing on my watch.”
“I appreciate you looking after him, D.”
“Whatever. You’re just trying to make me feel better about staying behind.”
“You see right through me.”
“More than you know. Just go get some sleep, Wendy, please? Don’t overwork yourself again, so soon.”
“Sure, I’ll give it a shot. I’ll call again later?”
There was no verbal response. Just the call ending. I hadn’t touched my phone.
I set my phone down, the screen flat on the table, and I looked out the window.
The scenery passed me by.
Dark, but I didn’t have any issues when it came to seeing. Trees grouped into clumps zipped past, the long fields of tall grass rolling as the RV sped along. The sky, visible and unobstructed, open in all of its glory. Hardly any clouds, we had left most of them behind, along with the city, and all that was in view now were the stars. Plentiful and bright. Clusters of white dots that expanded and stretched into the horizon. Shades of blue and white hues streaked across like broad strokes of paint on a horizon. A canvas that wasn’t blank.
I knew light pollution was a thing, but I had never expected this. The night sky, shimmering with splendor. It looked so cool that I had to use words like ‘glory’ and ‘splendor.’
I recalled Hleuco, how he used to fly overhead as I traversed the rooftops. The freedom of it all. The desire to reach just a little higher. Being here, seeing how hills would dip and I could see the tops of the trees, the sky above, it seemed almost feasible.
Wings. If only I had those for a power. I could get up high, but something always brought me back down.
If only I was completely untethered.
To travel, going somewhere new, part of it was a little exhilarating.
There was a feeling that began to stir within me, the longer I stared out the window, listless. I couldn’t quite place it.
On some level, it bothered me.
I didn’t mind being by myself, but I didn’t like when my thoughts wandered. Because they invariably drifted towards me. And there was a tendency of that happening. I’d prefer not to be at the center of that kind of attention.
I would much prefer to focus on other things. Like this job, this favor for Styx. How I fit into all of this. What I would have to do to not fuck this up. Under that context, it was fine, since I was actively working to achieve something, but being alone with my thoughts, and nothing to direct it to or angle it towards?
I didn’t like where those thoughts might wander off to.
It was part of the reason why I wanted to call D, to clear my head, while still keeping my priorities in check. And talking to D was like getting splashed in the face with ice cold water. She was usually so bubbly and so extra that I had to stay on my toes, dealing with her. It took effort to keep up with her pace. But it was a good kind of effort. Keeping up with her? It was worth it.
She was usually so bubbly… except when she wasn’t. Those times were rare, but I’d know if she slipped into one of those moods. This was one of those times.
It reminded me of similar instances, when she would be blunt about her sidestepping any of my attempts to learn more about her past. Before, she’d make dry jokes about it, orchestrating an uncomfortable atmosphere to get me to drop the subject. It would work, too, and we somehow formed a decent relationship in the face of that.
And there was this most recent time.
Seeing her with Styx, how close they had to be, or have been… Was I supposed to just stand there and not be curious? To not ask for a sliver or information, at least?
No jokes, this time. She had shut me down, and she shut me down hard. D really didn’t want to get into it. Not relevant.
I had sensed anger, there, stemmed from annoyance. I knew not to needle her about it, the last thing I’d want was to push her too far, and then away. But, despite her repeating it time and time again, it was relevant.
How did her connection with Styx factor into him giving us this job? How would it effect the next two? Was Styx, in his own twisted way, helping us out? He had already given us a hand on multiple occasions, thanks to D herself, what was more assistance to him, under his own terms? It’d be a nice thought, but I learned to never guess his next move. I’d be better off guessing a coin toss. At least my chances were even, there. In theory.
He did mention setting up for a final, ultimate joke, and that it was part of this favor. That didn’t instill me with a lot of hope about what the outcome of this would be.
Which was why I wanted to pick D’s brain about Styx. If I knew more, then we could plan properly, and be more prepared.
But, no. Just anger, just deflection.
And all that anger was deflected back at me.
It was obvious that D didn’t approve of me taking the trip to El Paso by myself, even though I was the only one who could. Lawrence wasn’t able bodied, and D needed to stay in the city and the territory. This job had to be done, and someone had to be physically present for this part of it. Of this particular puzzle, I was the only piece that could fit. The queen. I could make moves that the other pieces couldn’t, I wasn’t bound by certain limitations.
This was my role in Los Colmillos. The Fangs. My purpose. This was who I was. Wendy, V.
Who was I?
The RV hit a slight bump, and I jumped. Fuck.
Exactly the kind of thing I wanted to avoid.
The invariable drift.
My eyes closed, and I could feel the desire to sleep grow stronger. So tired that my eye flickered, involuntary. No. We hadn’t even started yet.
I lifted my eyes back open, and turned away from the window. The rest of the RV.
I saw Isabella, sleeping in the back. She was leaning over the table, head buried in her arms. Eyes closed, but she didn’t appear to be stressed or troubled. Just asleep, with all the peace that brought.
Good for her.
I wouldn’t bother her just to keep my mind running straight. It was a long journey, and she needed rest. There was no need for her to stay up. She could sleep the whole way there, and it would be fine.
I still needed to keep moving, though.
Sliding out of my seat, I got up to move to the front of the RV. The hum of the road gave way to light music, playing at a low volume. The upbeat was accented by sharp, bright guitars, and a dance groove kept the tempo fast and energetic. I could hear other instruments in there, too, but I wasn’t familiar with that kind of stuff. I heard horns, so there was that.
I sat back down in another seat. My view changed, the road out in front of me, the signs and lights passing overhead.
“Good morning, Voss.”
Sarah greeted me first.
“Hey,” I said.
With her eyes still on the road, Sarah turned a dial. The music was turned down.
“You don’t have to do that,” I said.
“If you have something to say, I want to hear it in full. No distractions.”
“No distractions,” I repeated. “What kind of music is that, though?”
“Oh, that? It’s just samba.”
“Dance music from Brazil.”
“Are you from there, or have some connection there?”
“I do. My grandmother was from there. She was a musician. That’s her band, actually, she’s the drummer.”
“Really? Turn it back up.”
Sarah twisted the dial again, the volume swelled.
I could hear the music again. The song was at some extended interlude section, where each member of the band was jamming out with their respective instruments. The guitars were taking turns doing their own solos, the horns blared to the point of screeching, and the flutes and other woodwind instruments were playing harder now, making themselves more prominent to my ears.
Then the drumming.
Keeping up the pace, or maybe pace was being dictated by her. Each of the snare and cymbals crashed, the sound continuing long after another drum was hit. It built into a wall of sound, towering over every other instrument, almost overpowering the song itself.
But there was a trick to it. Something even a novice like me was able to pick up.
I could still feel the groove. The bounce and rhythm the drummer was going for. It gave the song a sense of direction, and gave the other musicians a platform to go all out and showcase their chops, too. The drumming didn’t overpower the song, it gave the song life.
A hit of the snare and a tap of the hi-hats signaled a change in movement, and another section started up. A vocalist came in, singing a melody that sat on top of everything else. The rest of the instruments had scaled back in intensity, including the drums.
But, for a time, they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. And even now, the drums still carried the rest of the song, being the foundation that everything was built upon.
“That’s cool,” I said, and that felt like an understatement. “Your grandma’s a badass.”
“She is,” Sarah said, smiling. It dropped a bit. “She was.”
I immediately felt like an idiot.
“Sorry to hear that,” I said, soft.
“It’s okay, it was a while ago, already. And she wasn’t at a bad age to go. Seventy-four.”
“Not bad at all.”
“Actually, in that song we just listened to, she was seventy.”
“Oh yeah, it was the last album she recorded with her band. Sold pretty well too, considering she’s been around for so long, doing what she was doing. Musicians usually taper off and plateau in popularity later in their career, or they fade into obscurity completely. Thankfully, she managed to avoid both. She stuck to her guns, marched to her own beat, and with the help of friends and some awesome aunts and uncles, made some awesome jams for over fifty years.”
“That sounds like a good deal to me,” I said. “Sticking to your guns, marching to your own beat. Definitely a badass.”
“She was a fighter to the end. I just hope I have fire like that, to last as long as she did. Or even just a spark is good enough for me.”
I paused. I would have said ‘same,’ or something along those lines, but she wasn’t my grandmother.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
Sarah set the volume back down as the song concluded.
“Ah, thanks. I’m sure she’d appreciate that.”
This was it. Exactly what I wanted. A decent distraction from the job we were doing, a small break. And it was nice to have Sarah be my distraction.
It… It was decent.
A break in the conversation itself, the sound of the road underneath us, the lights from the few cars, the streetlights, the stars above, made themselves prominent again in that lapse. Thoughts creeped.
I cracked a knuckle. The middle finger of my right hand. I felt a momentary heat.
“Sorry I kept asking about your grandmother, though. I didn’t mean to pry.”
I felt guilty about using Sarah’s grandmother as a topic to keep my mind occupied on other things. Guilty about pressing D and getting her mad at me.
“Nothing to be sorry about,” Sarah said. “Ask me about anything. I’m an open book.”
“Yeah, it’s totally fine.”
“Okay, then, uh, I’m guessing you’re from Brazil?”
Sarah slowed as a car ahead of us signaled that it was going right.
“I’m not from there, no. That side of me comes from my mom.”
“Oh, I’m similar. My-”
The break was sudden and noticeable.
“It’s alright, Voss. Just because I’m an open book doesn’t mean you have to be.”
Staring at the sky, I shook my head.
“It’s not that. Well, maybe it is that. But… I don’t know. It’s weird. The phrasing is weird.”
“Take your time,” Sarah said.
I was at a loss on how to process that. Her.
“I was going to say, my… the woman who had me was a musician, too. A singer. I never heard her myself, though, I couldn’t tell you if she was any good.”
“That is similar,” Sarah said. It would have been easy to construe that as patronizing, but, I didn’t get that impression from her.
The RV sped ahead, the car once in front of us was now out of the way, several lanes across.
Low in volume, but high in intensity, another samba jam started. The drums came in first.
“Maybe I’m overstepping my boundaries, here,” Sarah said, “But I’m guessing you didn’t have a good relationship with your mother?”
My lips formed a firm, set line. Sarah was driving, so she couldn’t see my expression, my reaction.
I could have stopped right at that moment, ended the conversation there and walked away. But, there wasn’t much else to do, I had to stay up, and Sarah wasn’t coming at me in a confrontational manner. It was relaxed, casual, and nothing I was used to.
“I didn’t, but it was not so much good, but more like nonexistent. She was in my life for only a brief moment.”
“Oh. She left when you were young?”
“No. It was the opposite, actually. I left her. For this.”
More signs and lights. We passed under them in silence.
“I always wondered how you ended up on this side of the coin,” Sarah said, breaking that silence. “Considering you were on the other side of it, not to long ago.”
“I was, but I was trying force myself into a role that didn’t fit me. It didn’t work, and now people hate me, or they hate the old me, and I’m not much of a fan, myself. So now, I’m trying this instead, and it seems to be working out. Or at least, I’m seeing a lot more success from this. It’s freeing, in a way. And I still get to help people, like what we’re doing right now, or back at the territory. I just don’t have to do it behind a mask.”
“That’s good, then. You found yourself.”
“I don’t know.”
“Now it’s my turn to apologize for prying, Voss. You don’t have to answer if you’re not up to it.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s… fine. I’m not exactly an open book, but, if it’s you, I’m not opposed to being… read.”
“If it’s you,” I added. Repeated.
The interstate began to wind, giving the path slight, soft curves. Sarah eased us around and forward.
“Like,” I started, unprompted. “I tried so hard to break away from my old life, that I veered into unfamiliar, uncharted territory, and I’m… I don’t want say lost, but it’s like a blank canvas. I want to fill it with different colors, but I’m not sure which ones I should pick.”
“Crisis of identity?”
“Something about that sounds too extreme, no, I wouldn’t call it that. I know who I am, who I’m supposed to be. I’m one third of the top brass at Los Colmillos, I’m the muscle of the group. I can be truly monstrous when using that muscle, but that’s the power that I have, and I won’t deny that about myself. But, it’s the other stuff, the simpler stuff, that I draw blanks on.”
My apartment. Lawrence’s comments, the other day. Even the clothes that weren’t my costume. My glasses. A lot of it was a conscious move away from her, from Alexis. But, in doing that, severing every connection and binding, I became free, but I was also now in free fall. It wasn’t like flying at all.
“Now I feel like I need to do some serious course correction,” I said. “To slow down and take stock of what’s around me, if there’s anything at all. Like, what do I even like? What music do I enjoy? I liked that song you showed me, but would I have come to that conclusion if I didn’t know the context? What about movies? Or what kind of paintings do I want in my room? I’ve never had the time to sit down and figure that out. This life, as I’ve known it, has been one job after another. Things that need to get done.”
Distractions, a voice in my head told me. I didn’t answer it.
“Do you really need to change yourself that much in order to disown your past self?” Sarah asked.
“I do,” I said, “I really do. Like I said, I’m not the biggest fan of my past self. I don’t even see her as me.”
“Hm, I won’t judge your conclusion, considering your circumstances…”
She had trailed off.
“But?” I ventured.
“But,” Sarah said, “While it might be a bit more on the extreme side, you just sound like any normal teenager. To me, anyways.”
Her words gave me a short pause.
“That sounds normal to you?”
“Well, sure. Every kid goes through something like that, growing up. Their body changes, their brain starts producing certain chemicals, and they start to look at the world, and themselves, in a different way. And kids and teens can struggle with trying to find out who they are, and where they fit into the grand scheme of things. They try so hard to figure themselves out, that they rush into adulthood and lose all perspective on how much time they actually have.”
“Time,” I said, still staring ahead, out the window. Something I felt like I had very little of. So much to do, so little time.
“So, if you want my advice, Voss, just take that stuff easy, and give yourself some time to learn and grow. You’ll have plenty of time and opportunities to find yourself. No need to hurry. Take it all in stride.”
“Taking it easy sounds hard,” I said.
“If it’s any consolation, then, you’ve done pretty well for yourself. You’re a teenager, but you’ve got adults answering to you. You hold real power and authority. You, you’re the best, Voss.”
“Now you really are patronizing me,” I said.
Sarah snickered. I turned to see her smiling.
“Where’s the lie? I mean it. You just need someone who’ll hold you down, keep you grounded. Ever had a boyfriend?”
We were still going straight on the highway, but we still took a sudden turn.
“Well, that’s fine, too, you’re still young.”
“Wait, don’t just assume.”
“My apologies, Voss.”
I gave Sarah a warning look, exhaling again.
For whatever reason, I wanted to refute her.
A few faces came to mind. Not because of any legitimate, lingering attachment, but because they were the only reference points I had.
A boy, back during her days in high school. Tall, black, looks were up to her standards. It never lead to anything substantial, otherwise I would have remembered his name.
And then there was Benny.
“Stuff from my old life,” I explained, not wanting to dwell on that particular thought. “And I’m not even sure if I’m into guys, or if I’m not into the idea of a relationship, in general.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“Does nothing surprise you?”
“I’m just saying,” Sarah said, smiling again. “Been there, thought that. You get your heart broken and you swear off guys and romance forever, but closing yourself off like that will only lead to more pain. People do need people. No girl’s an island.”
“Solitude is pretty freeing though. Peaceful.”
“There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. It goes back to my advice. Give yourself some time, space if you need it, and when things fall into place, you can go from there. Who knows? Maybe solitude is for you, after all.”
“Or,” Sarah said, stressing the word, “Maybe you find out that being with guys isn’t what you really needed, this whole time.”
She was supposed to be watching the road, but Sarah chanced a look at me, and she winked.
A smile, genuine.
Was I supposed to take that as a suggestion, or an invitation?
My eyes went back to the road. The question would go unanswered.
“It,” I started, trying to find the proper words. “It’s been so crazy, these past few months. Hectic. Everything happening, back to back to back, never getting a chance to sit down and breathe. I guess, during all this, I never stopped to consider that some things were just… normal.”
I was already sitting down, next to Sarah. I forced myself to breathe.
“It’s all part of growing up,” Sarah said.
I put stock into those words.
“It’s not bad advice,” I admitted, “Giving myself time. I wouldn’t want to force myself into anything just because it’s different. Wouldn’t be fair to me, and it’d just feel cheap.”
“Good,” Sarah said. Her eyes were back to the road. The ride smoothed out, the amount of turns and curves and bumps lessening. Sarah’s music finished after some lengthy period of time.
We traveled by the roadway’s hum. Saw the signs pass, watched the fields go by. Every star, every streetlight.
I finally spoke up again.
I took my eyes off the road. I got out my seat, putting a hand on Sarah’s seat to keep my balance. “Thanks for keeping me occupied.”
“No, thank you Voss, for keeping me company.”
“Well, there’s still a lot of miles and hours left, I’ll see if I can swing by again.”
“Anything I need to know about the trip? Any updates?”
“None really. Tone would radio in if there are any changes, but I’ll check on him again in a couple minutes. In about an hour, we’ll be getting off the interstate to take a detour.”
“In case of anyone on our trail,” I said.
“Yes ma’am. Right now, it’s just a precaution since it’s still so early on the trip, but if we get off early and take some back roads and pass through some dusty ghost towns, that should be enough to circumvent any trouble, or make it easier to deal with trouble if there is any.”
“Sounds about right.”
It was something D had mentioned and warned us about, going the route we were going. If cops or border patrol were to follow us, they wouldn’t make themselves known right away. They’d keep an eye on us, plan ahead, cut us off at any possible exits or farther down the interstate. If we didn’t know any better, we’d drive straight into their trap, snares and jaws and all.
If we didn’t know any better.
This was why we planned ahead. Being constantly on the move meant keeping them on the move, making them unable to set a proper plan into motion. They’d have to react to us, and we would be keeping them on their toes. Going onto obscure country road and passing through the smallest of small towns would force anyone after us into a bottleneck, and make them easier to take care of.
It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be easier.
“Then we’re right on schedule. Awesome. Thanks again for everything, Sarah, and not just for agreeing to drive me.”
“Anything for you, Voss.”
I moved my hand over as I changed positions, standing. Near Sarah’s headrest. My fingers were so close to her hair, I could feel stray strands brush my skin.
“Oh, and Sarah?”
“It’s Wendy. You can call me that if you’d like. I’ve probably mentioned that before.”
There was a pause.
“Oh. Okay, Wendy.”
Weird, hearing her say my name. Weird in a good way.
“Go get some rest, Voss,” Sarah said. “We still have a long road ahead of us.”
I chuckled, loud enough so I was sure she could hear me. That was a start.
“Sure thing,” I said.
I took my hand off her headrest, and moved back down the RV.
I saw that Isabella was awake.
She was up, sitting at the table where she just had her nap. Looking outside the window, her lips hanging around one end of a chocolate bar.
I felt a tug.
My immediate instinct was to pull away, but that tug got stronger, more prominent, the more I tried to fight it.
Why, exactly, she gave me that feeling, I didn’t know. And I was almost afraid of knowing why. It was the one loop I wouldn’t have minded being kept out of.
But, I had time, and while my space was limited, I could still try to learn and grow. Getting some rest could wait.
Swallowing my pride, I approached the young girl.